The Power of Words – Making sense of Political Correctness

chill out

Alan Watts once stated that ‘we seldom realize that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society’. This, to me, is a very important statement. Words are powerful, perhaps more powerful than we realize. ‘Words are things’, says Maya Angelou, ‘they get on the walls; they get in your wallpaper; they get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you’. An interesting metaphor. Words linger. They linger in the silent spaces between people. They linger in us and depending on the character of the word, can do tremendous internal harm.

We can all imagine what would happen if we were to accidentally consume, with our food, dozens of small but sharp needle-like pins. The resulting pain of having internal organs pierced and cut would be enormous if not life threatening. Can we then also imagine hurtful words, often as sharp as knives, tearing us up from within? Breaking us down?

Let’s take bullying, for example. There are words that humiliate and ridicule and make us feel very, very small. There are loud words that threaten and intimidate and then there are words that isolate, ‘push aside’, make invisible or that draw clear lines in the sand between one group and another. We, who are of a particular ‘higher’ nature, social position or aptitude distinguish ourselves from you, who is different, beneath us or just not the right fit. We, the in-group identify ourselves in relation to you, the out-group, and through our believe in your inferiority we are, as logic would have it, superior, perhaps even grand.

This ‘othering’, or distinguishing between groups of people based on a preconceived notion of their relative, let’s call it ‘worth’, can take serious forms. The most extreme perhaps is genocide, or the intentional eradication of an entire group of people based on their identity, which is different from and judged to be less legitimate than the identity of the oppressor. When I say identity, I mean those traits that come to and are embodied by us through our particular culture, and when I say culture I refer to that nebulous being parceled together by experiences born from race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, age or ability.

Sexual, religious or racial pejoratives are common in our everyday language. We are perhaps one of the most communicative species on this planet and that which we believe, imagine or think up, we also verbalize. We verbalize it with very particular words that have very particular meanings. The step from believing someone to be of lesser value to expressing this through both action and word is not a big one to take. If we understand this and also realize the ‘thing-ness’ of words we can come back to Alan Watt’s concept of expressing and seeing ourselves through the words that are given to us by society.

Now, if those words are describing us and if they are describing us in a way that is demeaning and if we cannot escape these words because they seem to pop up everywhere, then the words and their meanings may become internalized. With that, I mean, they become ingrained in our conscious. If I am repeatedly called stupid or lazy or dirty then perhaps I will start to actually believe that I am indeed stupid, lazy or dirty. The same holds true for being called beautiful, intelligent or strong.

Internalized oppression can be defined as the process by which a member of an oppressed group comes to accept and live out the inaccurate myths and stereotypes applied to the group. This might be easiest to understand if we take the analogy of beauty and how millions of young men and women are desperately attempting to make themselves beautiful in relation to a body that society finds lacking. Standards for beauty have become internalized.

James Baldwin does a great job at identifying this phenomena in the black conscious in his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley while Frantz Fanon has written much about how during colonial times, the colonized began to internalize the idea of the inherent superiority of the colonising culture.

Once we realize the power of words, what do we do? One solution has been to restrict, banish, replace or punish the use of particular words. The thought being that if certain words have discriminatory baggage attached to them, that we ought to replace them, in a sense to paint the house with a new, nicer and more equalizing color. Political correctness may be defined as the use of words that do not offend. In Canada, we now no longer say ‘Indian’ but refer to North America’s first people as First Nations and if we want to really be politically correct, then we say Indigenous people. We also no longer use the N-word, frown upon saying ‘black’ or ‘colored’ and refer to an entire group of people as African American.

There is much debate over whether political correctness is a step in the right direction, if it has gone too far or if it might actually cause more harm than good. Toni Morrison, I believe, had an interesting observation when she said “What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.”

Getting rid of ‘hate speech’ is important and attempting to create a more equal and just society by changing language is necessary. Something about changing language for the sake of ‘not offending’ seems not quite right, however. Opting to change the descriptor from Indian to Indigenous person is nice and good but how much change in my relationship to that particular group of people is really taking place? Especially if my change in language has been dictated to me by top down legislation.

It is easy to imagine a system that continues to oppress a group of people while simultaneously observing politically correct descriptors. The term green-washing comes to mind. This is a spin or a PR tactic deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims and/or policies are environmentally friendly. Similarly, one can hide a very real oppression by flaunting ones use of politically correct jargon. A look at the socio-economic condition of many Indigenous communities in Canada, or the higher than average incarceration rates of African Americans in the United States is telling.

Therefore, what do we do? First and foremost, our transition in the use of language has to be built upon an awakening of — an empathy for, a compassion with and the appreciation of — another individual or group in society as expressed through action. The fact that we all identify differently must become our strength. Diversity must be recognized for its beauty. The reverse, or the changing of language to instill a change in heart, will not work.

Political correctness is often an appearance for appearance’s sake. Perhaps it is the ‘political’ in political correctness that needs to be addressed. Treating one another with dignity and respect ought not be a politically motivated act but one that is born from the recognition of our common humanity and the sacredness of every individual life. Henceforth, let us refrain from political illusory and power wrangling and begin by asking in sincerity how someone would like to be called.

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Words – Making sense of Political Correctness

  1. I was thinking about this…. Great post!

    I think it is important to be tactful, to try to use the ‘right’ words and be sensitive (to avoid that duplicitous term, ‘politically correct’). It’s hard to know what are the ‘right’ words, like I’m still never sure which one to say, First Nations or Indigenous…

    I like the Toni Morrison quote, but I disagree a bit, finding the right words to describe oneself or others is not just about ‘definers’ and ‘defined’, it shouldn’t be about ‘defining’ people. But the words we use to ‘describe’ ourselves do give us a powerful sense of identity… gay, black, white, indigenous, male, female, skinny, Canadian, fat, whatever… we do use words to help us understand ourselves and others all the time, the problem is perhaps when our culture starts attaching negative connotations to these words, saying that some of these words are ‘good’ and others are ‘bad,’ transforming them into painful internalized triggers. Suddenly ‘gay’ or ‘black’ or ‘woman’ or ‘straight, white, male’ are not just words we use to ‘describe’ some aspect of our selves; they become ‘definers,’ signifiers of something bad, dirty, painful, inferior… and as you said it’s easy to internalize these hurtful connotations…

    The word gay, (to use the example that I know best and to avoid the insensitivity of assuming what it’s like for another minority) can easily go from a mere descriptive word to a ‘label’ that people use against you… And if growing up you’re beat with a word bad enough it becomes a painful trigger to hear that word even in ‘harmless’ settings… I guess that’s what I’m thinking when I say that despite the sometimes suspicious debate over ‘political correctness’, using the ‘right’ words is important… Even if someone says it with no conscious bad intentions or even thinking its playful/funny, a straight guy saying ‘fag’ still sort of hurts and angers me a bit… just like I imagine is the case for the N-word… on the other hand seeing the gay community reclaim words like fag is so empowering, transforming something that has been historically filled with hate into something positive and empowering, again perhaps just like the black community reclaiming the N-word?

    Anyway, yeah words are important, it’s an important discussion, that’s about so much more than just ‘political correctness’… cool post!

  2. I was thinking about this…. Great post!

    I think it is important to be tactful, to try to use the ‘right’ words and be sensitive (to avoid that duplicitous term, ‘politically correct’). Though it’s hard to know what are the ‘right’ words, like I’m still never sure which one to say, First Nations or Indigenous…

    I like the Toni Morrison quote, but I disagree a bit, finding the right words to describe oneself or others is not just about ‘definers’ and ‘defined’, it shouldn’t be about ‘defining’ people. But the words we use to ‘describe’ ourselves do give us a powerful sense of identity… gay, black, white, indigenous, male, female, skinny, Canadian, fat, whatever… we do use words to help us understand ourselves and others all the time, the problem is perhaps when our culture starts attaching negative connotations to these words, saying that some of these words are ‘good’ and others are ‘bad,’ transforming them into painful internalized triggers. Suddenly ‘gay’ or ‘black’ or ‘woman’ or ‘straight, white, male’ are not just words we use to ‘describe’ some aspect of our selves; they become ‘definers,’ signifiers of something bad, dirty, painful, inferior… and as you said it’s easy to internalize these hurtful connotations…

    The word gay, (to use the example that I know best and to avoid the insensitivity of assuming what it’s like for another minority) can easily go from a mere descriptive word to a ‘label’ that people use against you… And if growing up you’re beat with a word bad enough it becomes a painful trigger to hear that word even in ‘harmless’ settings… I guess that’s what I’m thinking when I say that despite the sometimes suspicious debate over ‘political correctness’, using the ‘right’ words is important… Even if someone says it with no conscious bad intentions or even thinking it’s playful/funny, a straight guy saying ‘fag’ still hurts and angers me a bit… just like I imagine is the case for the N-word… on the other hand seeing the gay community reclaim words like fag is so empowering, transforming something that has been historically filled with hate into something positive and empowering, again perhaps just like the black community reclaiming the N-word?

    Anyway, yeah words are important, it’s an important discussion, that’s about so much more than just ‘political correctness’… cool post!

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